Bombay Showcase

A theatrical history gone by

Compare a Google map of the Kamathipura area in Grant Road with poor scans of fading cartographical prints that were once full-colour inserts in the periodicals of yore, like the Imperial Gazetteer of India , for instance. What you’ll find is that you could pinpoint the location or thereabouts of one of the earliest bastions of Indian theatre: the Grant Road Theatre [estd 1846]. A stately venue, the building thrived in the mid-to-late 1800s. The signboard of Cafe Heaven, a humble eatery located at the nearest intersection, still cites its address as Play House Corner. This is rather ironic, because the playhouse [colloquially called pila haus by locals in its time] has not been in existence for more than a century and a quarter, and even the grand Art Deco cinemas that came decades afterwards now lie in a state of abject decrepitude. Yet, the faint traces of past grandeur remain, even if the streets are now lined with brothels and sex clinics.

Its architecture was modelled on the Regency style of the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane, whose current building has been in operation since 1812. It’s still robust and functional, and the home of many popular musical productions. It is perhaps a lesson in heritage conservation that appears to have spectacularly passed us by. At a time when whites had their own European Quarter [now Fort], the Grant Road Theatre was the first venue that sprung up in the so-called Native Town [that stretched from Kamathipura to Crawford Market], offering English entertainment primarily to Indians. Its lone precursor, the Bombay Amateur Theatre, had largely catered to foreign clientele and was auctioned off in 1835. Later, Parsi, Gujarati and Marathi theatre would come into glorious vogue in what became a veritable theatre district, with multiple venues springing up within Grant Road itself.

One of the most idiosyncratic forms of entertainment that found its way to India in the mid-19th century was blackface minstrelsy. It was a racially-charged form of American entertainment in which white performers painted their faces black to enact insensitive stereotypes of black folk that raucous white audiences lapped up with impunity.

In India, the conceit was somewhat inverted: the parodies were of broad Indian ‘types’, but the audiences was also Indian. So the inherent racism was the product of not just the white privilege and bigotry of its performers, but the deep-seated prejudices that prevailed within Indian communities themselves.

The main apostle of the form was a popular minstrel called Dave Carson, whose San Francisco Minstrels always earned generous box-office receipts at the Grant Road Theatre, where they first performed in 1861. Catering to the fractured psyches of the natives, he served up a foppish Parsi gentleman, Davejee Carsonbhoy, much to the merriment of his Hindu patrons, while the ‘living photograph’ of the famous Bengalee Baboo was his calling-card when it came to regaling Parsi audiences.

The Bengalee Baboo was the subject of a short piece I had written for Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song , in which Carson was performed by veteran Akash Khurana. A chapter in Naresh Fernandes’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot was a starting point for this exploration. Blackface representation has been a prickly matter for years, all but wiped off from the American stage and screen, being an egregious reminder of the nation’s painful past of slavery and brutality. Yet, this was an episode of Indian antiquity that perhaps deserved to be unearthed.

The Carson in our piece was a trans-racial character, someone who wanted to ‘attain the black soul’, and Khurana put on the makeup — burnt cork and cocoa butter with a wide streak of red carmine for lips — live on stage, making sure to project sympathy for the character he was lampooning. Later, he sang a ditty from Carson’s original repertoire, the lyrics having survived to this day. I am not sure if we were able to neutralise the material’s racial edge or rob his turn of its propaganda. In fact, members of the audience tittered at the use of the N-word, rather than be shocked by it. Carson, himself, became an impresario of the Indian stage, and never returned to his native land, having ‘attained Hindustanese’.

In the West, blackface minstrelsy introduced flawed but nonetheless larger-than-life images of African Americans into the mainstream. Closer home, it gave us our first glimpses of a national culture at the humble auspices of the Grant Road Theatre, where audiences represented the variegated strata of society.

The author is a freelance writer and theatre critic

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 12:39:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/a-theatrical-history-gone-by/article8670592.ece

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